We all have a need for connection, intimacy and emotional support. It’s the reason we are driven to create and maintain relationships with friends and partners, but just as relationships can be our greatest joy, they can also cause us the most pain. How often have you felt let down by someone in your life because they seem unwilling or unable to give you what you need?
It might be your partner jumping in with “helpful” solutions to your problem when all you want is someone to listen. It could be a friend who invites an extra person along on your coffee date when you were really looking forward to some one-on-one time, or someone who barely lets you have a moment to share your issues before changing the topic of conversation to focus on themselves.
If you find yourself getting frustrated or feeling resentful towards people, it’s often because your emotional needs aren’t being met. When you try to pinpoint what the problem is, you can readily identify the behaviour you don’t like. The problem is that focusing on someone’s behaviour doesn’t usually adequately express the real issue. People are very quick to defend their actions because they don’t actually understand what the real problem is. Communicating your emotional needs requires a level of vulnerability which we often avoid.
It’s important to remember that no-one is a mind reader and the only person responsible for ensuring you get your needs met (or for ending a relationship if they’re not being met) is you. When you harbour resentments, it can drive a wedge between you and the people you care about and the problem is unlikely to go away if you ignore it.
If you’re having difficulties in a relationship, here are some tips for helping you communicate more effectively:
1. Name the need
Here’s the tricky thing. For you to ask for what you need, you actually need to look within and work out what it is. If you’re feeling annoyed, irritated or offended by someone’s behaviour, it’s helpful to look beyond their actions to what those actions actually represent to you. You might think what you really need is for your partner to phone if they’re going to be late or for your friend to be on time for once. But what is the emotional need that you feel is not being met? Is it empathy, respect, encouragement, warmth, support, understanding or simply reassurance that you matter to the other person?
2. Take responsibility
Remember that while something may be very obvious to you, most of us are preoccupied with our concerns so it’s not fair to assume that anyone else will automatically know what you need from them in any given moment. It also pays to remember that we frequently make meaning of events, and sometimes those interpretations are way off base. For example, if your partner forgets your anniversary and you make it mean he/she doesn’t value you or the relationship, that’s a story you’re telling yourself that isn’t necessarily the truth. Getting your needs met means taking full responsibility for your own emotional wellbeing. In other words, we need to fact check our stories and speak up about what we’re thinking and feeling.
3. Drop your defenses
As a general rule, the people in your life aren’t out to deliberately upset you even if they’re a little self-centred or thoughtless. Most times if someone cares for you, they will happily meet your needs if they know how to (note: some people’s own personal history makes it more difficult for them to give you what you need). When you feel hurt by someone and your self-protective defence is to put walls up or go on the attack, you close the door on effective communication. It’s hard to be vulnerable, especially if you’ve been hurt before but if the relationship matters to you, then being willing to open up is the best way to ensure it’s satisfying and mutually supportive.
4. Communicate to connect
When you open up and tell someone what you’re feeling, it’s important to express yourself in a way that encourages connection, not conflict. You can do this by being clear that you aren’t blaming the other person for your feelings (see point 2!) and by expressing appreciation for the person. Be mindful of any tendency to be harsh and critical, or of making sweeping generalisations. Stay focused as much as possible on the facts, stick to the present issue (not dragging up every transgression that’s occurred in the last five years) and keep your intention and your focus on the importance of the relationship. As the old saying goes, being kind is more important than being right.
5. Be calm and clear
Try to be as specific as possible about what you need and what the other person can do in that moment. For example, you might say, “I appreciate that you really want to help me solve this, but I think I just need you to listen and I’m sure I’ll come to my own solution.” If you have a friend who continually moves the topic of conversation to her own issues, you might say, “I know you have some things going on in your life too but I wonder if you could give me your support to work this out and then I’ll happily give you my full attention.”
You might need to practice if you’re not used to asking for what you need in a relationship but the more you do it, the easier it will become. Most of us would rather have a difficult conversation than lose an important person but it might take you to be the one to take that first step. And when you’ve done all you can do, if it’s apparent that you’re unlikely to get what you need from a relationship, then sometimes you need to make the decision to move on and put your energy into a relationship.